Cruise ships are for tourists. Real travel is for wanderers who don’t want to just see, but experience something different. Packing and planning take a back seat to learning how to simply be in this game. So leave your guidebook at home, snip the Canadian flag patch off your pack, strip down bare, and walk into the world. You’ll come home different from how you left.
--Porter Fox, editor of the travel writing journal Nowhere
10. Lose the Technical Travel Wear
It is no more essential to wear waterproof microfiber pants that turn into shorts in a foreign city than it is in your local grocery store. Dress well when you travel. Nice clothes like button down shirts tend to blend in better than blue jeans or T-shirts. Spend the money you make selling your technical travel pants and waterproof fanny pack to buy a few local garments. Shop at an open market or a thrift store and try to avoid boutiques that sell to tourists trying to not look like tourists.
9. Sell Your SLR
You aren’t shooting photos for a magazine. You’ll probably look at your travel photos less than five times in this lifetime. So get off your knees and put your ridiculously advanced camera away. A camera lens is a barrier between you and the place you are. Live in the actual place instead and reflect on the memories for the rest of your life. If you must, get a 10 megapixel point-and-shoot that’ll make your blog, Facebook or Flickr page pop, and keep it in your pocket where no one can see it.
8. Get Lost
If you want to sightsee, surf the internet. If you want to learn about another culture, leave your guidebook at home and walk, eat and commute with the locals. Research the layout of a place—districts, ethnic quarters, industries, public places, monuments, museums—so you know what to look for. Then pick an intersection and general direction and see what you find. (A compass can be helpful.) If you have to carry a list or a map, fold it into the book you’re reading. You’ll be treated differently and find places you would’ve otherwise missed.
7. Go to Church
Go to church on Sunday (or Saturday), even if you’re a nonbeliever. It’s the world’s oldest gathering place where locals socialize, gossip, hang out and are generally at ease. Meaning you can get to know them and the way and place they live.
6. Self Propel
Find a bike, car, motorcycle or canoe and gain independence over your itinerary. Once you can stop and go when and where you please, the tourist trail loses its grip. You can see off-the-beaten path ruins or stop at a village halfway between here and there. I once stopped a man in the middle of the street in southern Thailand and rented his moped for three days. I covered 500 miles on that little bike I never would have seen otherwise.
5. Stop Buying Stuff
You don’t have to own a piece of something to remember it. Leave trinkets, rugs, antiques and T-shirts on the racks and collect things instead: matchbooks, seashells, sketches in a sketchbook, stories in a journal. And whatever you do, don’t talk about real estate. Imperialism is out of style.
4. Learn How to Tip
Don’t add to economic and cultural erosion by tipping the way you would in New York City. Ask about local tipping customs and stick to them. You’re not being cheap, you’re just being normal.
3. Eat with the Locals
Kitchens are the hub of every culture. Stay away from fancy restaurants and find ones that are full at noon and midnight. That’s the local crowd…they wouldn’t be there unless it was good. (No one outside of America goes out for breakfast.) Plan to spend a few hours and talk to your neighbors if you can. You’ll likely learn more out about the area than the food.
2. Read a Novel
The best way to research a destination is to read fiction: Maupassant in Paris; Borges in Buenos Aires; MuXin in China; Mrabet in Morocco, Atiq Rahimi in Afghanistan. There’s more contextual detail on how people are or what a place is like in a novel or short story than any guidebook. Words Without Borders (wordswithoutborders.org) is a good first stop. The nonprofit magazine publishes monthly and categorizes its writers by country.
1. Learn Six Words
Forget the phrasebook. You can get by in any foreign country with these six words/phrases: hello, thank you, sorry, how much, bathroom and where. Study the local accent and learn to speak the words perfectly. When locals answer you, nod and read their gestures and tone. You’ll pick up more vocabulary, slowly. Get the pronunciation right. When pressed, shrug and say sorry.
An extra tip, if you want it…
Stop and look around every now and then. Sit at a café, read in the park, take a siesta on a bench. The more you try to pack in to a trip, the less you’ll see. By sitting and watching, you disappear into the background and get a fly-on-the-wall perspective on wherever you are. And they get a break from you.